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Maple Breeze Farm proprietors Bonnie and John Hall keep busy in late winter keeping up with the farm’s maple syrup production. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
Bonnie Hall, who also serves as a volunteer on Westbrook’s Planning and Zoning Commission, tends the stove in the Westbrook farm’s Corn Crib shop. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
John Hall, who also serves as a Westbrook selectman, feeds logs into the Maple Breeze Farm sap evaporator. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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On a cold Saturday afternoon in mid-February, John and Bonnie Hall, owners of Maple Breeze Farm in Westbrook, could be found in the sugar house on their property, keeping an eye on the huge, wood-fired stainless-steel evaporator. The machine was heating sap collected from the roughly 1,000 taps placed on maple trees around the farm.
It was too cold that day for the sap to run, but a large plastic tub elevated outside the building had plenty of the clear liquid and was feeding the hungry evaporator via a primitive technology known as gravity.
Cold nights and warmer days are necessary for the sap to run, providing the raw material for what will become the farm’s flavorful and characteristic maple syrup, which is sold at the Maple Breeze Farm Corn Crib, 563 East Pond Meadow Road, Westbrook, along with other farm products, on most Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through May.
“When the weather warms up tomorrow,” John Hall said, the sap will “be dripping out of the taps into the barrels.
“We go around with a tractor and a trailer and collect—we have a pump where we pump out of those barrels onto our wagon,” he said. “Then we bring it here and we offload it into these tubs.”
While some much larger maple sugaring operations use vacuums to remove sap from trees, the Halls allow gravity to do its work.
“Then [the large operations] bring it to the sugar house and they run it through reverse osmosis that takes out a whole big percentage of the water,” Hall said. “That speeds it up. But to me, that takes some of the flavor out of it.”
The Halls’ evaporator is a monster that effectively eats up around two thirds of the small building’s real estate. As it runs, it emits clouds of steam, an ever-present sizzling sound, and a warm maple aroma. Hall bent down to open a door, revealing a fire into which he tossed several pieces of seasoned split wood. Heating the syrup with wood rather than oil improves the taste, in his opinion.
The machine is dangerously hot, except for one remote corner, where the ice-cold sap begins its journey through the various stages of the process. A float in that corner controls the amount of sap that comes in; the liquid then flows into a second box, where it’s warmed, then continues on.
In the sap pan, “there are some impurities in the sap and it comes up as foam here, which I scoop off occasionally,” Hall said.
As the liquid moves through, it is boiled until properly condensed.
“This machine will do like 60-plus gallons per hour to evaporate water out of the syrup,” Hall explained.
Once drawn off the evaporator, the syrup is filtered by hand—twice—through large, thick, woolen filters, which have been warmed in the hot sap. Then it’s boiled some more on a stove until a sample measured in a test-tube-like appliance is shown to have the correct viscosity.
“We bottle it right here,” Hall said.
“It’s a long process,” said Bonnie Hall. “But worth it. Totally worth it.”
“It’s a lot of sitting and watching,” John Hall added. “You have to make sure you’ve always got sap running in; you can’t let that run dry because the fire is constantly going.”
Maple syrup was discovered and introduced to European settlers by Native Americans, and Hall’s family, which has owned Maple Breeze Farm since 1635, has produced syrup on and off throughout the years.
“My father didn’t do a whole lot of it, only for personal use, and now we’ve gotten back into it more for sales,” he said.
In addition to selling the syrup at the Corn Crib, the Halls also sell it at local farmers markets, including those in Chester and Ivoryton, during the spring and summer. Last year, the Halls sold their syrup and meats at six different markets a week.
As far as making a profit from their maple syrup business, “It’s all relative because we put most of it back in,” Hall explained. “We’re constantly buying a little more of this, a little more of that. It costs a lot to do an operation like this.
“First of all, the wood’s got to get cut and split months ahead and be on hand,” he continued. “These wood piles [have] got to be ready in October or November.”
The trees have to be tapped well before they start producing sap.
“You can’t wait for the weather and then say, ‘Let’s get started,’ because the sap only runs certain days and you’ve got to be ready,” Hall said.
The glass bottles cost several thousand dollars, he explained, the wool filters are $60 each, and then there are the labels.
“But we wouldn’t be farming if we were doing it for the money,” said Bonnie Hall. “We’d be doing something else.”
Neighbors John Palermo and his son Jimmy Palermo stopped by the sugar house, followed by Bill Neal, who was there to purchase some dairy products courtesy of John Hall’s cousins at Sweet Pea Cheese in North Granby—the Halls provide these by special order.
When they’re not busy with maple sugaring, the Halls can be found most Saturdays in the Corn Crib, where there’s a large wood-burning stove and refrigerators and freezers stocked with bacon, sausages, ravioli, and eggs, among other products.
There’s usually a good number of locals, as well.
“We solve all the world’s problems,” Bonnie Hall said. “And sometimes Westbrook’s.”
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